Atlantic diary: St Maarten

The late-night approach to St Maarten was more complicated than anyone expected. The dependable Atlantic trade winds became flukey as we approached the Caribbean archipelago. We reefed, we unreefed, and reefed again. We steered doggedly downwind, dodging rocks in sloppy, choppy, floppy waters. It was all a bit tense.

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Astonishingly, the major navigation beacon on the south end of St Maarten wasn’t lit. I’ve never known that happen before. Navigation markers are like traffic lights: even jerks trust them. It’s disconcerting to search for a nagivation marker on the end of a small island in the middle of a dark, rainy night, and find it’s not where you expect it to be. You wonder whether your GPS is working properly, and whether your brain is working properly. We approached the corner without its light. We saw the corner without its light. And in slightly morbid silence, we passed the corner without its light.

We dropped anchor in Simpson Bay about five a.m., had a quick celebratory rum and hit the sack. By nine-thirty, we were back on deck taking instructions from the super efficient marina guy zooming around in his inflatable. He hailed us: “You be needing fenders on the starboard side from amidships aft, a long bowline port, stern line port and starboard and a spring-line from the starboard bow. Follow me.” That woke us up.

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Photo: Amanda Stonex

Motoring through the lagoon towards our marina was eerie. The island took awful damage in 2017’s hurricane Irma. We learned they’d had 100mph winds for over 24 hours, and that for at least two hours, the wind was in excess of 120 mph, with a peak recorded at nearby Antigua of 160 mph. That’s a bit like a force 8 earthquake running all day and all night.

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We saw wrecked boats all over the place. Masts sticking out of the water, large boats capsized off the beach, and many large boats beside the coastal roads, simply left to rot.

St Maarten is the dutch side of the island. The other side, St Martin, is French. The dutch side has large hotels and casinos. The French side has a more charming old town vibe with laneways and boutiques. People warned us that the French side was dangerous. But it wasn’t when we visited. It felt friendlier, with many more local folks hanging out in the cafes, more reggae in the air and fresher, more local ingredients on the menus.

Mostly what we saw was extremes of wealth. The largest yacht we saw barely fit through the drawbridge canal. It sported a Tommy Hilfiger flag, Tommy Hilfiger-clad crew, and someone who looked a lot like Tommy Hilfiger himself on the upper deck. Cam took our passports to the customs office and bumped into Michael Jordan’s posse. The vast majority of planes flying out from the airport were small private jets. We met virtually no local white people. The few we did meet were invariably bosses, and weren’t born on the island.

One such was Topper, a bar owner and rum distiller. This short, stocky and fabled New Yorker was rumoured to be the last person to have seen his business partner alive (other than the killer of course), swaggering around in long black hair, jeans and a panama hat.

On a drive away from the big resorts and marinas, nearly everything was rough. We saw countless houses in ruins, but still providing homes for many people. We drove through neighbourhoods of derelict poverty, to plush seaside neighbourhoods with tidy table umbrellas sheltering beautiful people downing elegant cocktails. On the French side, even the courthouse – an elegant colonial edifice – had plywood sheets nailed into the window frames.

I got the impression that the French and Dutch governments were providing enough support to keep the tourism dollars flowing through the marinas and hotels, but deserting the locals to fend for themselves.

I’ve done much less traveling than most of my peers. This trip has partly changed that, and partly not. Most travel is about the destination: the big cathedral, the iconic museum, the legendary festival. On one level this trip was nothing but travel. As with long haul flight, one never really falls asleep: one only ever wakes up: it’s just day after day of watery horizons sparsely punctuated by dolphins, an occasional bird, one whale and the odd bit of plastic.

But arriving in a strange land on a small boat? That’s something. The little fishing village of Almerimar. The weird oceanic volcano of Tenerife. Smugglers in Gibraltar. None of these are places I’ve ever once considered visiting, and if we hadn’t been wandering around the sea in a boat, I simply wouldn’t have.

Anywhere, here’s the video. Give yourself twelve and a bit minutes, pop it to full screen, check your volume level and away you go.

 

 

Atlantic diary: Venus and the dawn watch

Previously: Gibraltar. Last week: Tenerife. 

She’s a true professional, and won’t even get out of bed before midnight. At 3am she stirs, just a glow in the north-eastern sky behind us, like the ambient light of a city in our wake. An hour later she’s just visible, peeking over the blanketing horizon, scrutinising her nocturnal dominion, slithering through the folds of the ocean.

Suddenly, she emerges, fully decked out, all sequins firing and the band in full swing. She rises high and fast, shimmering in the sky like liquid gold, so bright she casts a silvery reflection on the sea, a secret sun shining in the dead of night.

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We’re not alone. That old lightman the moon is waxing, hanging around like a spare wheel but working wonders in the ambience department. Orion is doing his same old trick: plunging headfirst over the horizon from a standing start: it never gets old. Occasionally the scorpion comes out, and sometimes, at the right time and in the right light, you can see Alpha Cantauri on the south horizon, the pointer on the cross promising all the riches of the southern oceans.

Sadly, the Milky Way chorus-line has taken the night off – you can blame the moon – leaving a dedicated skeletal cast working the moves. The backdrop’s not what you think either. Far from the deep blue velvet we see at home, tonight everything is draped in a luminous olive green. The salty haze of the ocean gives the lights some atmosphere to bounce off, and it’s really all just hallucinogenically beautiful.

Venus is getting higher now, higher than ever. She’s still burning with astonishing intensity, but she’s struggling, and this is how it always has to end: she never makes it to the final curtain.

Look back astern to the eastern horizon, from where she rose just a few hours ago: something’s coming. The sad truth is we’ve all been suckered, and Venus has been pimped. The sky’s lighting up like a prison break now, and before long the sun rolls in, fat and burning. The fluros come on, Orion’s long gone, the moon’s cowering and delights of the night give it up to the bright light.

The flying fish have breathed their last in the halyard bags and scuppers – they always have to overdo it – and you know just who’s job it is to clean them up. You feel hungry, but the smell is off putting and the star (we never call her a planet), well she’s not around anyway, so what’s the point? If there are dolphins, they’re no longer defined by their torpedo costumes made from streaming, phosphorescent clouds. They’re just big, friendly fish, here for shits and giggles, and they don’g give a damn.

Console yourself, it’s only Venus. Enjoy the sunrise.

Coming soon: epic video! While I finish off some editing, here’s a bit of raw dolphin footage. 

 

Atlantic diary: Tenerife

Excerpts from a crew’s log on a transatlantic crossing. Previously: pirates, macaques, and mystery fog in Gibraltar. This week: things that go bump in the night, and a minor but catastrophic case of gear failure.

Somewhere around 7 December 2018

We cooked up some one-pot meals, froze them, and got out of Gibraltar about midday, motoring through the straits in very light wind. A mini-transat racing yacht out of Tangier motored alongside about a mile distant, its sole occupant busy on the foredeck. I thought, if that one guy can do this alone on a six metre racing yacht, what the hell have I got to worry about?

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Almerimar, en route to Gibraltar.

The haze still hung about us, casting the Moroccan skyline as a watery, grey silhouette. I’d have given anything to go and explore it. To think I gazed at Morocco through binoculars but have never set foot in Africa is tantalising in the extreme. I could see minarets poking up above the dense housing that cascaded down the hillsides.

Slowly the haze swallowed Morocco in our wake, but we weren’t alone. The GPS showed plenty of ships around us. Eventually we ate, still under motor, and I got some sleep before my watch began at six a.m. When I came back on deck for my watch, Cam and Jo had already hoisted the mainsail. Cam and I unfurled the jib without needing to say much, and he turned in leaving me alone at the wheel. Eventually, I indulged in my favourite maritime moment, the one thing that makes everything worthwhile, the main thing that keeps me getting back on boats: I turned off the engine.

We get so accustomed to noise. Even the roaring drone of the diesel becomes tolerable after just a few minutes. Hell, I’d already spent several nights sleeping right next to it. But when we turn it off, it’s as if the very space around us relaxes. Everything about the boat – the hull, the rig, the sails – is suddenly released, and feels as if it can do what it was meant to: move through the water and the air. I’ve little time for large modern racing yachts running engines to power their winches. That’s just a total buzz kill.

As the eastern sky started to glow, the last of the ships finally disappeared off the edge of the GPS. I took great joy at being alone at the helm as the others slept. Just me, the night sky and the endless ocean, which I pictured as a kind of pathway leading all the way home to friends and family in Auckland, and Australia, and all over the world.

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I looked up and gazed at Orion, standing gratifyingly upright in the northern hemisphere, even as he tumbled slowly, slowly, hour by hour, into the sea: the great celestial comic act. He’ll be here all week.

The sky brightened, the sun came out, and for the first time in my life there was not a single bit of land anywhere to be seen.

At about 1130 we set the gennaker, and made 10 knots in a following sea. It was fun, easy sailing, but not for long. Suddenly – pop! – the entire massive sail dropped in a heap into the sea before us. I was on the helm, and rapidly discovered the trick of keeping the boat close enough to the soggy mess not to over-tension it, but not so close that we’d sail over it and get it tangled in the keel, either.

Clearly the halyard had failed. We slaved to retrieve the sail, and succeeded only in wearing ourselves out. Pausing to refocus on the problem, we immediately found the solution, and let go the tack line completely, rope and all. With only one of its three corners now attached, the enormous gennaker streamed out behind us, largely on the surface. It  offered little resistance and we soon brought it in, easily enough. On we pressed, a bit slower, a bit tireder, a bit wiser.

I got my head around the night watches, which were three hours on, six off (there were three of us on board at this point of the voyage). I spent a lot of time avoiding a gybe, which is easier during the day when there are plenty of visual cues about what the wind, waves and boat are all doing. On dark nights, we could be wholly reliant on the instruments, and nothing else but the silent, ever-changing signals of the rudder through the steering wheel.

I soon realised that the self tacking headsail required a preventer to stop it slamming across the foredeck every time it lost the breeze: whhhhiztBANGGG! … just a few feet above the pillow on which Cam kept his sleeping head.

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Unknown object spotted in a Tenerifean chandlery.

If we came across another vessel, most likely it would appear on the GPS, along with everything we could wish to know about it, including the time, coordinates and speed of any immanent collision. If something showed up which wasn’t registering on the GPS, it could sometimes give us the shits.

One night while motoring in a flat calm, I looked over my shoulder and was astounded to see what appeared to be a little orange fizz boat, tracking us about 100 metres off our port stern. Ruling this out as a possibility, I put my eyes back on the instruments and sought out a horizon in the cloud-covered darkness. Recovering my bearings, again I looked back over my shoulder, and found to my astonishment that it was getting closer. And, what’s this? A mast? Couldn’t be. And yet I could not deny that this fizz-boat looking thing had a bright, white light several metres above its deck.

Practically out of my mind with anxiety, I reached for the binoculars. What I saw took my break away, and I issued the first of only two involuntary gasps of the entire voyage. It was not a boat. It was the slenderest, orangest crescent moon I’ve ever seen, perfectly horizontal, its two tips poking over the flat horizon, its lower limb kissing the sea. In a few moments it rose higher, swinging like a big, back-lit bag of beans across the horizon, casting a reflective orange pathway all the way to my feet.

As for the mast light, that turned out to be Venus, casting her own reflective pathway, which is unusual for a star or planet. She became our great friend, greeting the morning watch with a spectacular show, without fail. More on her later.

We reached Tenerife in the Canaries late on the fifth day out from Gibraltar. It was dark, so all we could see were lights. A fresh breeze came up from the west, and we reached fast under main and jib through the flat water of the leeward coast. The sun came up, the wind dropped off and the watch system collapsed entirely as we worked our way to Marina San Miguel in the south, where we made fast at about 10 am.

Tenerife is a gigantic volcano, a massive pile of scoria punctuated with cacti, poking out of the north Atlantic. Typically at this time of year, a strong wind called the Levant blows up from the east, every afternoon, up to about 25 or 30 knots. I could walk up the foothills and look back towards Africa, and gaze at miles and miles of ocean, all of it whipped into a million peaks of foaming white-caps. The metre-thick concrete sea wall seemed a hopeless defence against such an onslaught.

I prayed my atheistic prayer to the non-existent gods of chance that we might find a gap in this daily weather routine for our departure. For while this powerful breeze blowing in our direction would help us peel off the miles, it was disconcerting stuff to set out in. I’d rather ease into the trip and build confidence as we went.

We drank strong carajillos for breakfast and tasteless but refreshingly icy beer for lunch. We hauled out, scraped off some barnacles, and reapplied anti-fouling paint. We got in a row with the marina staff, who practically inisted on an argument before getting us back in the water. We picked up new crew, Toby and Marin, bringing our number to five.

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We hauled George the rigger up the mast with a rivet gun and a new gennaker halyard sheeve. We bought out half a supermarket as well as the local farmer’s market, and picked up a jamón ibérico (named Gracie by the resident psychiatrist who fell immediately in love with it, and Robbie by the more radical crew factions) and G-clamped it to the saloon table. We cooked up bag after zip-lock bag of one-pot meals. We drank cheap Gs&Ts at the marina bar, a corrugated iron affair, where we brayed and bragged with the local live-aboards. And then, after several days of general shit-sorting, we found the day of departure upon us, when we could point the ship in the general direction of the Americas, and our destination, the tiny island of St Maarten, smaller than Waiheke, but higher, and definitely stranger (to me at least), over 2,000 miles to the west.

And I thought: let’s hope the bloody weather holds out for us.

Coming up next: two weeks and three days of bloody nothing whatsoever besides ocean, fish, dolphins, birds, turtles, waves, clouds, rain, sunshine, food, sundowners, philosophy, singalongs, navigation, technical problems, sail changes, a whale, oceanic plastic and an absolutely astonishing number of flying fish.

Also, coming soon: video!

 

Atlantic diary: Alicante to Gibraltar

All day we sailed west in the bright, clear light of Spain’s Mediterranean coast. But to the south, and ahead in the west, a dense cloud of something heavier than vapour hung low across the horizon. “Saharan dust” Cam said, which sounded very exotic to me.

The southern end of the haze had the yellowish tinge of the desert, slowly turning orange, then grey as the day advanced. The stuff ahead of us was white, and it also darkened in the afternoon, to the colour of an old smoker’s finger.

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In the little village of Almerimar, the harbour master had a sense of humour. “I know kiwi” he said. “Kiwi is not just a fruit, but also, a peoples.” He wasn’t impressed by our destination. “Gibraltar?” he sneered. “The English, no control. Lot of smuggling.” Eyes bulging at such hopelessness. “They don’t deserve it. They can not control it!” And finally, nodding: “they will lose it, for sure.”

The VHF radio was busy, especially at night, and mostly with the inane ramblings of bored commercial crews – maybe fishers – on solo watch. “Monkey wanna banaaanaaa! Banana want a monkeeeey!” Some jacked up fool a long way from home was going out of his mind and he didn’t care who knew.

We reached the rock two days later at four in the morning, tip-toeing our way past dozens of anchored ships of every size, shape and purpose. Maybe one of them contained the solo rambler.

Over VHF, a baby-voiced English man refused us a marina berth, despite our previous emails, so we made for a fuel wharf. We motored cautiously into the inner harbour, gazing stupidly at the vast port machinery. It seemed as if the bright city was rising out of the very sea around us. Even the wharves had wharves – and every kind of vessel clung to them like barnacles, super yachts and cruise liners blending seamlessly with high-rise buildings.

It felt like Hong Kong: a strategic port on the corner of a vast continent, and precariously British.

People were clambering down the sea wall, lugging heavy bags full of who-knew-what, and we didn’t wait around to find out.

Suddenly, two high powered speed boats – tiny skiffs – came tearing out of nowhere, planing at high speed across our bow. Neither of them had any lights at all, which immediately stood them out as being dodgy as hell.

We watched cautiously as they came to a sudden halt at the foot of a sea wall, not far from us. There was no boat ramp, no wharf, no jetty or landing of any kind. Just a deserted street running along the top of the sea wall amid a few dark warehouses.

An SUV was parked nearby. People were clambering down the sea wall, lugging heavy bags full of who-knew-what, and we didn’t wait around to find out.

The next day we took the cable car up the rock, hung out with the macaques and gazed down at Gibraltar, Spain and Africa. And then, far off to the south, we saw it again: the low hanging haze. It moved fast and within a few minutes, everything was gone: Spain and Africa were no more. All that existed was us, the macaques and a few tourists, as the fog ploughed into the rock and stacked up in piles ten, twenty, fifty stories high around its monumental base.

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I thought of the guys in the skiffs with their bags of stuff, now hidden tight in the bilge of some factory fishing boat, itself long gone, as the fog smothered the world in which we would soon be cast. I thought of the junkies I’ve known, and wondered if any of the the cargo would end up in their hands.

And I thought about what lay ahead for us, too: four or five day’s sailing to Tenerife. Everyone knows the Somalian coast is dangerous for its pirates, but we were a thousand miles from there. And yet, why should Africa’s west coast be any safer, I wondered. And what about the skiffs? Guys like that must be everywhere. How many more of them might we encounter?

A day later, heading west again with Gibraltar receding astern, I peered through my binoculars to see minarets emerging from the same fog lying over Tangier, off our port side. And I thought, what a fool I am. Why had I left it so long to see these things? As we got closer I could see houses tumbling down the hillside in landslides of cubes, and the architecture was so dense and different to anything I’d ever seen before, I once again felt the surge of exoticism, and very far from home and family.

I’ve sailed all my life. But now, for the first time ever, I longed for the stability of solid ground, and all that comes with it: walks, gardens, buildings … And so, with Morocco receding into the mist behind us, and just a few days into a month long journey, I started to wonder just what the hell I’d signed up for.

Coming up next: our narrator’s unstable sense of perspective is further exacerbated by a dose of catastrophic gear failure and some goofy ocean wildlife.

The Village, in NZ Sign

Disclaimer: here I talk about my experience with a deaf community. I am not deaf. Where I describe deaf experiences, I’m reliant on what people have told me, and what I have observed. I take full responsibility for any assumptions, misunderstandings or mistakes.

As a hearing person, facilitating a script development workshop with a room full of deaf teenagers isn’t without its challenges. Sure, there’s a translator, and Kelly Hodgson’s ability to channel information along with subtle character nuances as was nothing short of miraculous. She was literally a multi-media nexus for twenty people for two hours. It’s hard. The students can’t hear me, and I can’t read them. There are silences while people sign-talk their way through complex details, and often, misunderstandings. And the silences are punctuated by palms slapped down on tables, as people draw your attention to what they have to say.

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Last year, my videographer friend Hank Snell had just embarked on a new project with Kelston Deaf Education Centre (KDEC), and invited me in to help with the storytelling. I’d worked with the deaf community before, and found it exhilarating, so I didn’t hesitate. A week later, we found ourselves in a room with a dozen or so students, some teachers and support staff and the miraculous Kelly, the interpreter.

love focus groups. There is nothing quite like a detailed, thorough, discursive examination of a meaningful topic. Invariably, you get to some crucial nugget that seems obvious, but which everyone knows we’d never have discovered, had we not had the discussion in the first place.

So the students were clear. The film had to have the following characteristics:

  • It should be about the village, which is what they call the student hostel at KDEC
  • Life at the village can look strange, to outsiders, and the film should reflect that
  • Most importantly, they said, someone should learn to sign

We asked, “what sort of strange?” Mostly, the strangeness revolves around a myriad of potential misunderstandings. Hearing aids’ batteries go flat at crucial moments. People *accidentally* trip the fire alarm (I still can’t quite imagine what chaos is like in a deaf environment). People turn the stereo on, loudly, and walk away leaving it blaring, just as Important Hearing People come to visit.

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And this: hearing people hate silence. Any interviewer knows that silence can be their most powerful weapon. Want someone to speak? Ask them a tricky question, and STFU. Silence draws language out of hearing people like a vacuum sucks matter. It’s not that deaf environments are silent. It’s just that sound is irrelevant. So you learn fast not to worry that someone’s pounding their fist on a table top: they’re just saying “Hey”.

So I took away a bunch of anecdotes, and our three key principles, and wrote up a draft. Hank stymied the fire alarm idea out of hand. Fair enough: no budget for elaborate set ups. Besides, tempting though it was, in a short film it sacrificed too much of the human story.

In the end, we gave most consideration to the widely shared experience of learning to sign, and we were surprised at the conflicts we found there. It’s not that learning a language is hard: of course it is. It’s that for many teenagers, the first encounter with sign language is not always good. There’s no guarantee that NZ Sign (or any other sign language) will reach any given household. And the families of hearing-impaired kids learn to cope with the condition, as much as the kids do themselves. Arriving in a deaf community for the first time, as a teenager, many find themselves resenting others who can’t understand spoken language. And it goes the other way, too. Signers can get frustrated with new arrivals who can’t sign.

As one student unpacked this experience for us, over half the room acknowledged that they’d had similar or identical experiences. This, it was clear, was the story they wanted told.

Running the creative workshop through an interpreter was difficult, and getting on set presented entirely new challenges. Eventually Hank, myself and our producer, Melissa Laing of Arts Whau, figured out a comfortable process. Melissa and I either worked with the actors as Hank shot the scenes, while the other one of us prepared other actors for subsequent scenes.

In fact, Hank shot hardly anything. Having worked with a wide range of groups with special needs for over twenty years, he’s developed a facilitative approach, taking his hands off the gear as much as possible, and keeping the students busy. So it was KDEC students who operated the camera, set our mini lights and swung the mic boom. You can hear him talk about all that to Lynn Freeman on Radio New Zealand.

Amy Blinkhorne and Nicki Morrison, both deaf staff at KDEC, co-produced. Amy supported the creative process from conception and throughout the shoot, and supported Hank with a heap of editing. Nicki basically just made everything happen.

I hope people like the film. It’s not all comfortable viewing, and to say that budget was a constraint would be both an understatement, and unfair on Arts Whau, who do an amazing job channeling the vibrancy of a challenged and diverse community.

It sort of goes with the territory of community art, that the challenges in the community can feed straight into the project. So the strangeness of silence is there for you all, if not to enjoy, then to experience and reflect on. The film also shows some of the unique – maybe even eccentric – individual responses to a challenging world, and we didn’t always have the time to be subtle about it.

And, most importantly, someone learns to sign. It happens on screen. And – for those of you who watch to the end – it’ll happen for you too. Unless, of course, you’re already conversant in NZ Sign. In which case, all I can hope for is that you recognise the experience our hero Brandy goes through, either in yourself or in someone you know.

 

Living on in Unknown Places

I was sad to leave my teaching gig at Manukau Institute of Technology. I liked the staff, a lot, and felt rather privileged to be in their company. And the students were among the most dedicated, motivated and hard working I’ve ever been lucky enough to meet. All in all, a top crew. I’ve survived a few restructures in my time. But this one got me.

The good news is that some of it lives on. In one of my courses, a little group of students and I were charged with exploring the “collaborative skills of professional writing.” So we put out a book. All I really did was repeatedly ask the same question: what sort of book you guys gonna write?

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Cover photo (ex. thumb) by Kendra Leilua. This image includes a simple piece of manipulation which made it perfect for us. Chocolate fish if you spot it, and the location.

They came up with Unknown Places. It’s about the bits of Auckland you can’t normally see, and it’s also about some well known bits from a previously unknown perspective. The students came up with the concept, and the writing brief, and the writing, and the review process, and the cover photo.

The few dozen copies we produced sold out more or less immediately over a few sandwiches in the campus atrium, and just broke even. Imagine that! Should have done more.

But good news! Russell Brown, proprietor of our favourite Auckland blog, is publishing the stories this week on Public Address. Here goes chapter 1: The Crescent (Otara). The students were very clear that a) they wanted an intro from me, and b) it shouldn’t be in any way separate from the rest of the book. So it’s ended up as chapter 1.

And here’s chapter 2: Queens of K Rd (central) by Annette Morehu.

Keep an eye out on Public Address for four more stories coming out over the course of this week. I’m proud of what we accomplished. And I’m excited to see what Annette Morehu, Damian Pereira, Mark Joblin, Nicole Magolan, Anna Matheson, Saracen Aiono and Cameron Airlien come up with next.

I feel lucky to have worked with a group of diverse, creative and dedicated people. See you round, guys!

As for me, I’m returning to freelance work, unless and until I track down more teaching. So, if you have any need of a writer/ facilitator/ researcher, the lines are open!

Gender politics and sport

You might not know it, but the elite yacht racing community is taking a lead in terms of gender equality in sport. It’s a simple solution: all you have to do is specify a minimum number of women in the crew. Since most yachts are sailed with more than one person, it’s very easy for a governing body to dictate how many of them must be of any particular gender.

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Not for the faint hearted, Turn the Tide on Plastic, crewed by 5 men and 5 women, heads for Cape Town (and soon, Auckland) in the Volvo Ocean Race. Photo: Irish Times.

It’s very limited so far, but there are at least two elite events where it’s currently being practiced: the Olympic Nacra 17 class, and the Volvo Ocean Race, which departed Hong Kong last weekend, and will arrive in Auckland around the end of February.

The Nacra 17 is a hydrofoiling catamaran. It’s the fastest boat in the Olympics, and therefore one of the most competitive classes in the world. Its class rules require that one of the two crew members be female: skipper or forward hand, makes no difference, either will do.

The Volvo Ocean Race is more complex. Because men – for whatever reason – have dominated the crews for so long, very few women have the same level of experience as the most experienced men in the race. So, the race organisers have established some incentives for teams to recruit women. The more women you have, the more crew you can have.

Therefore, a team can have any of the following crew combinations:

  1. 7 men
  2. 7 men plus 1 or 2 women
  3. 7 women plus 1 or 2 men
  4. 5 men plus 5 women
  5. 11 women

Disappointingly, many of the old trousers of the event were moaning about this, and initially, several teams figured they’d go short handed rather than tolerate women on their boat. Gratifyingly, there are now no boats sailing without women. Most boats are sailing under option 3, with two women. One – Turn the Tide on Plastic – is sailing under option 4, and they’re mostly rookies.

That means that, for the first time in the event’s long history, a woman will know what it’s like to win the Volvo Ocean Race.

It’s not that there haven’t been women in the race in the past. But they tended to be confined to their own boats. So while someone like Peter Blake did the event twice as a crew member before skippering in it three times, before finally skippering a boat to victory in it, his accumulated experience was only ever obtained from, and shared with, other males. This pattern is evident in the results. Women’s crews simply haven’t performed that well.

Some folks say, well, if women can do it, let them compete against men. That’s a bit like the old corporate boys claiming there’s no sexism round the board table: everyone knows it’s bullshit. Anyway, why does it have to be like that? Why can’t women and men compete together?

It raises the obvious question: why don’t other sports do the same thing? Team sports would seem to be the ideal place to enforce gender equality. We already insist on team sizes, and often in amateur divisions, on body size as well, and age. Gender seems like an obvious extension.

Tennis has been doing it for ever. So has social netball. Why not others? Hockey? Football? Rugby? What – exactly – is the problem? Will players forget where to put their hands? Will athletes become bashful in the white heat of play? If a player gets red-carded for pile driving an opponent’s head into the ground, what difference does it make if that opponent is male or female? The behaviour should be rightly punished, either way.

Presumably, people get a bit freaked out about different body types colliding in a high contact sport. Is it too sexy, too dangerous or both? Rugby’s already dangerous. Would it be any more so? Perhaps the umpires have a problem with it – damned if I know. Seems like a no brainer, to me.

Imagine the problems that would be solved by mandating mixed gender participation in major, male dominated sports leagues and international competitions. The role modelling alone would revolutionise society overnight. And – who knows – it’s nice to think they’d all be on the same pay scale, too. Although, sure, you’re welcome to believe that one when you see it.